Monsieur Gibbon’s Judges

A history of convivial symposia or drinking parties is rare. but one archival document opens a window on a past scene of drinking

Literature Wine

Could one ever write a history of wine-drinking? One’s immediate reaction is, “Why ever not?” But on reflection, one realises that much of what one initially thought could be evidence for such a history is in fact slightly beside the point, or rather evidence for a different kind of history. Literature, of course, is full of either descriptions or dramatisations of drinking scenes. But these are always distorted or refracted versions of a reality, even when they are modelled on a particular recollection — which is perhaps not often. 

Wine-drinking has left us a rich legacy of objects — barrels, bottles, cups, glasses, corkscrews, decanters, filters — all of which have participated in episodes of actual drinking, but on which those episodes have left no legible mark. Some of the most evocative objects associated with wine are those twin-bladed cork removers jokingly known as “butler’s friends” — presumably because they allow a cork to be taken out without evident damage, and the fine wine within sampled and replaced by something cheaper. Yet these objects are faithfully mute concerning any surreptitious drinking at which they may have assisted.

People who drink for business, such as wine merchants or wine buyers, have certainly left plentiful written records of their tastings. But again, this is not quite what we are after. These are the memoranda of essentially solitary and narrowly instrumental evaluations, not of convivial symposia or drinking parties. (Having said that, professional tastings can degenerate — or evolve —  into such parties; but by that stage no one is any longer capable of writing.) These records are the legacy of a particular kind of business, and they stand in at best a kind of ancillary relationship to that more expansive and human activity of drinking towards which they point, but on which they can shed little light, and the dialectical nature of which entirely escapes them. One is driven to the conclusion that, for the most part, drinking is an activity which evaporates upon the wind. As it unfolds, it is accompanied by volubility — sometimes, at its best, by riotous and unbuttoned volubility. But these sallies are not, and must not be, even remembered, let alone noted down and recorded.

Was it always so? Our current amnesia about drinking means that historical and geographical variables are lost to sight, even though it is hard not to believe that in different places and at different times, people drank in very different ways. However, very occasionally in an archive one chances upon a document which unexpectedly opens a window upon a past scene of drinking. I found one of these a few months ago in a Swiss archive (the Swiss are exceptionally retentive when it comes to family papers, which makes their archives wonderful places to explore). It is a single, small sheet of paper, undated, with writing in French on only one side, in three different hands; and it records a difference of opinion about a wine which had been drunk one evening in Lausanne — an evening which must have fallen sometime between 1783 and 1787. 

The first paragraph translates as follows: 

It seems to me that the wine of Cornaro that I drank at M. Gibbon’s has never been good. It is certainly not good at this moment. And I believe that it will never be good. De Saussure, Juge de Vin. 

Below this is a dissenting opinion:

I dare say that the wine of Cornaro that I tasted at M. Gibbon’s will improve very much if kept for at least two years, and will be very pleasing. De Mourens.

Finally, a third opinion is appended: 

It will never be very pleasing. At the moment, it is hard and green. Deyverdun.

It is not easy to be certain quite what this “Vin de Cornaro” was, although my best guess is that it was a red wine from the Veneto, which might easily have been imported into Lausanne. The Cornaro family in Venice had been major wine shippers since the 16th century, with holdings in the hinterland of the city, as well as a thriving business importing strong red Cypriot wine. Assuming however that the wine sent to Lausanne was locally produced (perhaps some kind of Valpolicella), it has to be said that these wines can be unreliable even today, when advances in the technology of wine-making have done so much to eliminate outright disappointment (albeit often, it must be confessed, at the price of spreading mediocrity). In the late 18th century, with no limitations on yields, and with practices in the cellar less hygienic and vulnerable to freaks of temperature and to contamination, the red wines of the Veneto must have been a very chancy proposition for the purchaser.

But this little scrap of paper, a chance survivor of the great bonfire of history, suggests other things about wine-drinking in polite Lausannois circles at the end of the 18th century. In the first place, it reveals a continuity between then and now in the language of assessing wine — ”hard” and “green” are terms still used today to evoke a wine suffering from insufficient fruit and unripe tannins. However, perhaps more striking is the discontinuity to which it points. Today, if you open a bottle of wine among knowledgeable friends you will certainly evaluate it, and you will very possibly disagree about it; but it would be unusual to record your various opinions on paper. It would seem strangely formal to do so. A certain formality, however, is precisely what this leaf of paper evokes. It is there in M. de Saussure’s proud designation of “juge de vin” (presumably a public office relating to the city of Lausanne’s vineyard holdings on the northern slopes of Lake Geneva), as well as in the orderly recording of these three, slightly discrepant verdicts, ranging from de Saussure’s comprehensive condemnation, to de Mourens’s view that they were drinking it too young, to Deyverdun’s guarded hope for modest improvement (“never very pleasing” still leaves the door ajar for the wine to develop in the direction of at least some additional pleasure). 

Wine-drinking in the Pays de Vaud in the 1780s was not just a bodily gratification; it was also an exercise of judgment and a display of character. You can picture the scene.  It is early evening, as a small group of well-to-do men gather round a table bearing glasses and bottles. If it is summer, perhaps they are outside on the terrace looking beyond fields and vineyards, over the lake towards Evian.  If it is winter, they are inside in a long library, lit by candles and sconces.  The bottle is opened and poured. They swirl, sniff, and sip. Then M. de Saussure takes a sheet of paper, dips his pen, and begins slowly and carefully to write.